There is something in us that comes out when the environment changes, like that funny thing that always happened in school when the power went off. Under cover of darkness, mild mayhem would erupt. We would all start ooooohing and shouting. Excited tusseling would break out. It was like our primal urge to oooh and shout, tussle and clang about was just barely contained under the thin surface of our skin, ready to break free at the slightest crack in the structural integrity of our world. The teacher would always scramble to bring order back but no one would pay the slightest hoot of attention until the lights came back on. Only then would we come back to our civilized senses.
In a far less funny way, I see whispers of that insurrection surfacing now, under cover of COVID-19. My daughter started worrying about looters and madness when the coronavirus was just getting itself established on the West Coast, weeks before it would hit Maine. I couldn’t believe it. She’d lived through Arab Spring, both revolutions, the second time around while barricaded in an apartment in Cairo a mere two blocks from the epicenter.
So I was stunned. Whatever happens here will be baby stuff in comparison to what she’d gone through. I was still at that point of relative remove in which the threat ahead was mostly theoretical and potentially manageable with a good supply of clever memes. It was even kind of exciting in that perverse blizzard-is-coming sort of way.
But my daughter knew there is a whole psyche associated with deprivation and, like money, there is a difference in behavior when the deprivation is new and when the deprivation is old. This would be a new kind of deprivation for most of us here in the states. At least people in Egypt were used to going without; it was an everyday thing for the government to turn off utilities just to show them who had the power. Here, my daughter pointed out, we don’t know what it’s like not to have access to basic supplies. And people do crazy things.
Two weeks later when the virus showed up on the East Coast someone at work told me he only had 4 rolls of toilet paper. With a wildness in his eyes I had never seen before, he asked me if I carried.
“Carry toilet paper?” I asked. I couldn’t catch up to this new world we now seemed to be living in.
“No, a firearm!” Shocked by my ignorance, he spelled it out. “I’ve got 3 guns in my truck right now. I’m not going anywhere without them. You should get a gun.”
The charge coming off him was almost visible. In that moment I knew I would never again look at my co-worker without seeing the primalism just under the surface of his skin, not realizing that whatever invisible dimensions were submerged in all of us, they were also on their way out.
Within days the word goes out at work that there will no longer be any meetings in offices or conference rooms. But we don’t really get it. Though some of us start self-consciously opening doors with paper towels, we all still throng around the coffee pot and microwave and continue to crowd our lunches into the communal refrigerator, one on top of the other like food puppies with no sense of personal space. We never even get to the point of practicing real 6-foot social distancing before half of us are told to pack up our laptops and go home.
Overnight life gets visibly different. Out in public there is a new edgy wariness of shared space. On walks we all give each other wide apologetic berth, one party stepping clear out into the street as we cast rueful smiles to acknowledge this rude return to the juvenile cootie catching behavior of our youth we’ve all worked so hard to overcome.
Well, let me say life gets visibly different overnight everywhere, that is, except down at Ledbetter’s convenience store where the drug deals carry on. It’s a block from downtown — a mostly self-contained spot of trouble positioned inconveniently for me along the route of my regular walk. I just stick to my side of the street and keep my hand on the pepper spray in my pocket when the Ledbetter’s foot traffic crosses over.
But as I walk by Ledbetter’s today, I notice no one over there is observing social distancing. People are still clustering around the self-service redemption machines in the parking lot with their returnables and standing around in groups smoking. While my practice has always been to maintain my ground with a polite neutrality when crossing paths, things have now gotten complicated. If I step out into the street so as to gain us the recommended 6 feet of safe distance, there will be no mutually apologetic and rueful smile of understanding passing back and forth between us to acknowledge the unintentional rudeness. It will feel like a truly hostile and provocative move, as well as an unfortunate exposure of the more accurate apprehension I feel at this cultural intersection. The truth is I am uncomfortable here. It’s hard to get a read on whether walking by is actually dangerous or not. How can you tell if you’re being a privileged pansy ass or a practical realist?
My walk, however, is a critical component of my carefully designed personal infrastructure system, so I’m going to have to do something about this. The times are now clearly calling for adaptive measures. My first thought is to map out a walking route that gets me downtown by simply stepping a few blocks around Ledbetter’s. But then as I picture this, I get a vision of all those empty parking spaces downtown. Everything is now closed. There is nothing to draw in the business people and restaurant goers to balance out the potentially scary ones. I would be on my own down there.
I finally determine there is no way to salvage the Ledbetter’s stretch or the downtown. It just needs to be completely avoided. I decide I’ll just do the second half of the walk twice. At this point my big concern is focused on holding onto hills, which I rely on for cardio purposes. But I’ll still get all the good ones in on the back half. There’s just the iffy isolated part on Nelson Street down by the Kenduskeag Stream where, bizarrely, a blue tent popped up last week in that wooded area before the houses start. That was strange but I’m willing to set that concern aside because Nelson Street is important, the Mt. Everest of Bangor. I really don’t want to give that one up.
In the end I am only able to hang onto Nelson Street for one last walk. All was fine on the way down, though I wasn’t happy to see the tent guy out of his tent, shouting like a madman at no one I could see. He was a good distance back up in the trees, but I reflexively put my hand on my pepper spray anyway. It always made me feel better. However, it only took turning around at the bottom of the hill and starting back up for me to realize that a guy who takes to the woods to get away from the socially-spread viral contagion I now represent is probably a guy who carries. My pepper spray has me covered for 15 feet whereas he can shoot me from where he stands.
At that point I’m so preoccupied with keeping my eye on the tent guy and getting past him without attracting any attention I don’t notice the slight, squirley guy in a black leather jacket coming down the hill on the other side of the street. He’s already got his eye on me when I finally notice him, but that doesn’t interrupt the leering. Age-wise, he’s one of those who could be anywhere from 40 to 65. I make a big show of reaching into my pocket and taking my pepper spray out, letting him know I carry. Looking him straight in the eye, I challenge him with a greeting.
“Good morning.” He says nothing, just carries on with his creepy leer.
Keeping a watch over my shoulder while rounding the corner to make sure he continues on his way, when I turn back around, goddammit, I see another guy looming up ahead! This one is bending over to pick something up at the edge of a construction site where a house is going in. Even from that hunkered position I can tell this one is young and big. Maybe one of the builders? But it’s Saturday. And there don’t appear to be any other workers around.
When he stands up and starts walking down the hill toward me I see he has something slung over one shoulder and is carrying something else in his opposite hand. I can’t make out what it is but I can see he’s wearing combat – style pants and boots, paired with a sleeveless t-shirt. As we get closer the thing over his shoulder begins to look like a….bow and arrow? And the other thing…is that a hand saw? They are, indeed. As this one walks by, he nods almost formally, like he’s tipping his hat to a lady. A cordial killer in combat clothing.
People are freaking me out. It’s clear the Nelson Street hill is lost to me until after this craziness gets over. Alright, so be it. In fact, I will no longer even cross Ohio Street where things start to get a little sketchy. Ohio is now the official COVID line. Therefore my plan will be to walk each of the 5 hills fingering out from the historic Standpipe district down to the edge of Ohio but no further. I’m not happy about this but that’s the way it is.
That first day over on the safe side of the COVID line, I find that Highland Ave. is actually a decent hill. If I do it several times it might even equal Nelson Street in intensity. Not really, not really at all, but I decide to decide that these adaptations will be okay. Until, that is, I’m about a block away from the bottom of Highland and see a guy down there walking his little dog. Run-walking his dog, rather, with an odd, jerky-fast shuffle. As I get closer I hear a loud scuffing sound in tempo with his shuffle. Is he wearing slippers? But why would slippers be so loud? When he disappears around the corner at the bottom I’m relieved. I just want to be alone. I’m tired of people and their weirdnesses.
Unfortunately, when I get to the bottom of the hill I see that he and the dog are right there, hanging out in front of the building while the dog noses around. Well, fine. I turn around at the Ohio line anyway. But then when I’m a half a block back up the hill I hear that loud shuffle sound again. Looking over my shoulder, sure enough, here they come. I’m instantly annoyed. I hate that creepy sound.
Seeing them this time, though, I’m struck by how fast they are moving for an old shaky guy in slippers. I instinctively quicken my pace. For god’s sakes, why is that scuffing sound so bizarrely loud? And it freaks me out the way the sound accentuates the weird jerky way he’s running. But then when I take another glance back it finally hits me that something neurological is going on. Maybe Parkinson’s. Maybe even Huntington’s the way that one arm is flailing so wildly. Is that why he runs? Could Huntington’s force a person to run? Well, at least I can outrun him.
I step it up a little more to put some distance between us, but in mere seconds the scuffing gets even freakishly louder, pushing me into full-out running. God, is he chasing me? Suddenly I’m seized with panic. What if I can’t outrun him? Life has gotten so weird it could happen! Why is everyone behaving so flipping off their rocker? What is going on!
A surge of anger suddenly floods through me. I’m so flipping pissed off at the Parkinson’s guy for outing the smallness of my personal panic and concerns when there are essential people out there putting their lives on the line so we can all eat and stay alive. Meanwhile, I’m running away from a disabled guy who is just trying to take his dog out for a walk any way he can. My mother has Parkinson’s for god’s sakes!
I’m ashamed of myself. While others work in clouds of potentially COVID-infused air, I am in about as protected a position as it gets working from the safe cocoon of my home while Gary, my partner, works from the safe cocoon of his closed-for-business shop. The grocery store is our singular, once-a-week point of exposure. So you would think in the realm of dangerous pandemic assignments, the ones Gary and I got handed are so easy I would have more available bravery and honor to tap into, seeing how underutilized my supply is. But I don’t. Because the coronavirus has exposed a terrible truth:
We are not in control.
Not only are we not in control, we never have been and we never will be no matter the damage one single human being might be able to do at any one point in time or how many discoveries and marvels humankind might be able to muster, because from the second we are born we are all still just responding to something that happened before, with no real control over what happens after we’ve made our next move. There is only so much we have a say in. Something bigger than our humble kind always has the last word even if we manage to get a lot of punches in.
I know that. I already knew that. Everybody knows this, it’s not a genius revelation. But it is a truth we can easily get out of the habit of believing. We are so often allowed to feel our own agency it reinforces the illusion that we are kind of in charge. Even if we’re not calling the shots on an executive level, in our own tiny ways, we can easily get in the habit of believing that we are in charge of our domain. We map out our walking route. We shop for groceries when we need to. We plan our days. And I rely heavily on this illusion of control to support my functionality.
For me, being one of those highly sensitive, easily over-stimulated people who alternates between flights of great fancy and nosedives of despair, I use this assumption of agency to create a very stable living experience. I exert exuberant control over my environment, my schedule, my food, my weight, my routine, my bedtime — all the external things that can help create a sense of internal evenness. But look what happened to the walking route I have honed to perfection over these last 10 years? Dismantled in a day! These days I can’t even count on being able to buy yeast and flour to make bread!
The world is falling apart. We have no idea what it’s going to look like when it’s finished collapsing but when it’s all said and done, we know we’re going to have to figure out what it all means. And it’s these big life lesson moments that always remind me of the annual report story I wrote 20 years ago about a lady with cancer who was going in for an experimental treatment. I wondered about her so many times over the years after writing that story, so when I ran into her about 10 years later I was overjoyed to see she was alive. And it was so wonderful to hear about her recovery, but before we said goodbye she got a haunted, almost hurt look on her face.
“I still don’t know what I’m supposed to learn from that. Why I went through what I did.”
I think that’s what we’re all thinking about right now. What are we supposed to learn from this? What are we supposed to take away from this disease that passes from person-to-person by droplets as invisible as cruel thoughts?
I’ve been figuring out what I personally want to learn from this on my walks, which is where I find all my answers, but after getting pissed off at the Parkinson’s guy, I stayed clear of Highland Avenue for a while. I was still mad at him for outing my small, self-centered powerlessness. Then after a few days I thought, well, I could walk on the other side of the street. Highland, after all, is the best hill I’ve got. Chances are good he doesn’t even cross over. And so while he sat outside his apartment with his dog on his side of the street, I worked on the problem of what I wanted to learn on my side.
I knew this learning was around choice — the only thing we’re left with since we don’t get control. I just hadn’t clarified how I could work with choice to re-create the illusion of control sufficient to contrive a sense of even ground, of safety. Then one day after turning at the bottom of Highland and starting back up, leaning into the hill with my hands clasped behind my back, it came to me while watching the Parkinson’s guy tilt his face to the afternoon sun.
The choice is just about being here. Was I was going to be present or was I not? Could I learn to be a compassionately neutral witness* to all that is happening, including my fear of a shaky old guy walking his dog when my carefully orchestrated world is crumbling around me? Because if COVID was blowing the cover on the truth of my limited control, then I was going to need something powerful like presence on my side to help me bear staying with the experience I was having instead of getting the hell out of that one and into a better one, my usual power play. I was going to need something powerful to help me stick around and be with what was happening.
If I could just learn that it would change everything. If I could just learn from COVID how to be present — how to let one part of me go all the way to the ground with the experience I’m having, down to ground zero, while the other part stands back and takes it all in with open, neutral eyes — it would change my world. That way no matter how desperately I might or might not want to be there feeling whatever I’m feeling, there will be a part of me standing off to the side, saying it’s okay, this is just the way it is right now in this moment. You can do this. As Circe says, “This is what it means to be alive.”
And just like that, just by agreeing to stick around and be with what is going on, half the pressure goes away. Poof. Simply because I’m no longer arguing about whether I’m going to accept it or not. And the rest of the pressure? That’s the pot of humble soup where I experience being human.
In the end, wouldn’t it be something if the coronavirus unleashed our souls and taught us how to live? Maybe that unleashing of the soul is what is actually supposed to go viral.
And then, down there from that hot, humble pot of soup on solid ground, we are able to figure out our next move. Our next move with soul.
*To my mind, neutrality is a form of compassion, especially when a bias for the harsh or critical is the default.
From Circe by Madeline Miller